James Landale, Diplomatic Correspondent, BBC News discusses Britain’s diplomacy, development and the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

It was at a reception at the British High Commission in Nairobi that I came to understand both the influence of UK aid policy and what some see as its incoherence. There in one corner was a large gaggle of officials from the Department for International Development. Huddled around them were Kenyan businessmen and women, civil servants and charity bosses. The hubbub, the laughter and the chat were at that end of the marquee. In the other corner was a desultory group of Foreign Office diplomats, fewer in number, and definitely attracting less attention. There – in a nutshell – was an illustration of the problem.

On the one hand, Britain’s firm commitment to overseas development, the £15 billion it spends each year on untied aid, the third largest such budget in the world, gives the UK huge soft power. It attracts attention, it opens doors, it makes the UK a player in vital parts of the world. It even, dare I say it, saves lives. But at the same time, that aid commitment seems detached from Britain’s diplomatic priorities, unconnected to the political and commercial objectives that the UK government wishes to achieve.

To some purists in the aid sector, this is a good thing. They believe that diplomacy and development are distinct. Aid budgets, they argue, are there to reduce extreme poverty. And the role of departments like DFID are simply to decide where and how to spend the limited money available free from political constraint.

But to some diplomats, this is a mistake. They believe that it is possible to use aid budgets to tackle both hunger and disease, while also promoting national interests. The question, of course, is how. Boris Johnson has concluded the best solution is to merge the Foreign Office and DFID into a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The Prime Minister has been much criticised for doing this. He has been told it is ludicrous to rearrange the deck chairs in Whitehall in the midst of a global pandemic and economic crisis. He has been accused of using the merger to distract from his domestic woes. But I want to park that political criticism for a moment and examine a perhaps more substantial critique.

The thrust of Mr Johnson’s rational argument for the merger was the need to provide coherence in UK foreign policy, claiming that distinctions between aid and diplomacy were “artificial and outdated.” And he said this had been illustrated by the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which had required policy decisions on vaccines and health resilience that required blended input from the FCO and DFID.

But the Prime Minister’s separate, more emotional motivation was also there to see. For too long, he told MPs, Britain’s aid budget had been seen as a “cash-point in the sky,” detached from British diplomatic and commercial priorities. This is a longstanding gripe on the Tory benches; the argument that much of Britain’s aid spendingis wasted and could be better deployed at home. For now, Mr Johnson says he does not want to cut UK aid: he says he remains committed to spending 0.7 per cent of UK national income on overseas development assistance. But he is clearly thinking about spending the aid on different priorities. For example, he has suggested that less money would go to Zambiaor Tanzania, and more would go to Ukraineand the Western Balkans where there are vital European security interests.

To the aid sector, this is the problem. They fear this means less aid will be spent on poverty reduction and more used to boost security and trade. But to those who support the principle of this shift in priorities, there is a different and perhaps more fundamental criticism. They ask whether merging the FCO and DFID is the best way of achieving this aim. They argue that it is entirely possible for Mr Johnson to shift the strategic direction of UK aid policy by being, well, Prime Minister. He can tell DFID how he wants the aid spent and he – as chairman of the National Security Council – can make sure it does as it is told. In other words, there is no need to abolish DFID, to waste time on tiresome machinery of government changes and risk diluting the UK’s international reputation as an aid superpower.

John Casson, the former British Ambassador to Cairo and one-time foreign policy adviser to David Cameron, hopes that the merger may blend the best of the FCO’s political agility with the best of DFID’s delivery skills. But his fear is that the new department is more likely to comprise the worst of FCO short termism with DFID’s bureaucratic caution.

For here we come to the rub. What many suspect is that for all the rational arguments, Mr Johnson just wanted to scratch the Tory itch about DFID, to satisfy those on the Tory right who – like him – have just wanted the department gone. And ultimately, so the argument goes, that is not the best reason to be making a change of such significance. In other words, the critics suspect that politics here is trumping policy.

The evidence for this comes in the timing of Mr Johnson’s announcement, in the middle of June, while most of government is focused on coronavirus and fixing the economy. Officials insist the Prime Minister just wanted to get the new department up and running this autumn so that it is well placed to handle the UK’s presidency of the G7 and the COP26 summit on climate change next year.

But this is to ignore that the government is currently conducting an ‘integrated review’ into the whole of the UK’s ‘global Britain’ foreign policy. It has been delayed by the pandemic, but officials insist it will be published in the autumn. And yet the Prime Minister has already decided to merge the FCO and DFID. In other words, he has decided the ‘how’ before the ‘what’. It is not clear yet what policy this new super department, the FCDO, will be enacting.

It will not be the first time that a cart has been driven before a horse along the streets of Whitehall.


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